Justice Dept names former public defender to fill pardon attorney role

The U.S. Department of Justice building is pictured in Washington
The U.S. Department of Justice building is pictured in Washington. REUTERS/Leah Millis
  • Elizabeth Oyer appointed to oversee office vetting clemency applications
  • Oyer has called on Biden to appoint public defenders to DOJ

(Reuters) - A former federal public defender in Maryland has joined the U.S. Department of Justice as its first permanent pardon attorney since 2016, taking charge of a key office that is responsible for vetting federal clemency applications.

Elizabeth "Liz" Oyer, who left the partnership at law firm Mayer Brown a decade ago to represent indigent defendants in the federal public defender's office in Maryland, was appointed to her new position last week by Attorney General Merrick Garland.

She inherits a backlog of 18,295 pending clemency cases at a time when criminal justice reform advocates are urging President Joe Biden to use his vast power to grant pardons and commutations to reduce criminal penalties they see as unfair.

Liz Oyer. Courtesy of DOJ

Biden has yet to issue any pardons.

The appointment to lead the Office of the Pardon Attorney signals a shift by the Biden administration to the department playing a more traditional role in reviewing clemency requests following years of former President Donald Trump largely bypassing it, often to pardon political allies.

“We're glad that position has been filled, as you need a fully-functioning pardon attorney if you're going to grant clemency," said Kevin Ring, president of the criminal justice reform advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "I wish it didn't take this long but it looks like they found a good choice."

Oyer could not be reached for comment.

Oyer, a Harvard Law School graduate, worked at Mayer Brown as an associate and later as a partner from 2005 to 2012. She has worked at the public defender's office since then, serving most recently as senior litigation counsel.

The Justice Department's website said she handled a variety of criminal cases as a public defender, from complex fraud to drug and gun offenses to violent crimes.

Jim Wyda, the top federal public defender in Maryland, said in an email that Oyer "will work tirelessly to right wrongs and make our system of justice work better for everyone."

In an op-ed published shortly before Biden took office in January 2021, Oyer called on his administration to appoint former public defenders to the Justice Department.

"Fresh perspectives are essential," she wrote. "We cannot prosecute our way out of the crisis of mass incarceration."

Biden has nominated a record number of former public defenders to the federal judiciary, including Ketanji Brown Jackson, who the Senate confirmed earlier this month to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Note: This story was updated with additional detail on the vacancy filled by Oyer's appointment.)

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.